The Big Interview: Former head of British Cycling Brian Cookson

Part Two: Brian Cookson talks to Craig Salmon about leading British Cycling through a golden period of success

Saturday, 23rd May 2020, 4:45 pm
Brian Cookson

Once upon a time it would have been considered unthinkable to see a British cyclist parading down the Champs Elysees in Paris wearing the iconic yellow jersey.

In more than 100-years of the world famous Tour de France – the most gruelling test of a rider’s endurance – there had never been a competitor from these shores who had finished ahead of the pack in the 2,000 mile event.

First held in 1903, the competition has been largely dominated by Frenchmen and natives from across the border in Belgium.

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There have been a number of winners from other European countries such as Spain and Italy before American Greg LeMond became the first person from outside of the continent to win the Tour in 1986.

But for Britain, seeing one of its own scaling the heights of the world’s toughest endurance race seemed to be as mountainous as one of the Tour’s famous mountain stages.

However, Britain’s long wait for a Tour winner finally came to an end after 109 years when Bradley Wiggins famously rode to victory in 2012.

As the world stood in unison to applaud Wiggins’ accomplishment, they would soon become accustomed to the spectacle of a Brit standing on the podium in Paris.

Chris Froome has dominated the Tour since Wiggins’ first went where no man from the UK had been before.

From 2013 to 2017, he claimed victory four times out of five before Geraint Thomas became the first Welshman to win the Tour in 2018.

To have six British victories in seven years after nothing in more than a century would appear to be extraordinary.

But as Preston-born former cycling administrator Brian Cookson revealed, the success of British riders in the Tour is the result of a vision first put in place back in the mid 1990s. With the sport at a low ebb in this country, Cookson took charge of British Cycling in 1997 and set about changing a losing culture.

Indeed, it could be argued that the success of Wiggins, Froome and Thomas in the Tour was a rite of passage considering Britain had emerged as one of the world’s cycling superpowers over the previous decade.

After barely winning a medal at the Olympic Games in any of the cycling disciplines, Britain began to churn out a production line of champions.

From winning one gold at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Team GB enjoyed unprecedented success eight years later when they collected eight at the Beijing Olympics.

That number was equalled once more four years after in London, and at the last Olympics, in Rio, GB cyclists returned home with another six golds.

Nowadays, Britain is the standard bearer for cycle racing excellence, but as Cookson pointed, the country’s rise from minnows to giants within the sport did not happen overnight.

“In the mid-1990s, cycling was in a dire state administratively speaking,” recalled Cookson.

“I was a local official of the British Cycling Federation.

“I went to the Annual General Meeting and I remember there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the national body and the whole board was thrown out on a vote of no confidence.

“A few of us were elected on the floor of the meeting because I had been one of the most outspoken voices.

“A colleague of mine asked me to become president and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it for a year or two and lo and behold, 17 years later I was still there.

“In that time, we were fortunate that a lot of good things came together.

“We got National Lottery funding which made a huge difference.

“But we went from winning one Olympic gold in 76 years to winning six, seven, eight golds every time there was an Olympic Games.

“It’s got to such an extent that people expect us to win that amount.

“We have also seen the road riders in the Tour de France coming through and being successful there.”

While he headed the organisation, Cookson revealed British Cycling’s success of the past decade or so has been a huge team effort.

And he is immensely proud of what he and his team managed to achieve.

“Over the years a lot of good people came together and worked hard,” said Cookson.

“It was by no means a one-man show. We had a good strategy , the right resources and the results speak for themselves.

“To see the amount of medals the team won at the Olympics, it was unbelievable to be part of.

“I am very proud of what we managed to achieve.

“It was a massive effort by a very talented group of people. Everybody who has bought a lottery ticket had a small part to play in the success.

“I think the nice thing about being part of sport is being successful and the satisfaction you gain from the processes you put in place which contributes to that success.

“Behind the scenes that is what we did very, very effectively.”

Next Saturday – part three of the Brian Cookson story